Bringing History Back to Life with the Newseum’s Creating Camelot

Photography is often an overlooked force in our understanding of history. Strong photography depicts how we feel about what is happening in the present and lasting images of historic events shape the way future generations experience the past. The photography of Jacques Lowe is at the intersection of two of the most important moments in United States history, separated by more than 40 years, and without Photoshop and a talented team of photo restorers at Washington D.C.’s Newseum, it might have been lost forever.

As a presidential photographer, Jacques Lowe covered John F. Kennedy and his family for three years, developing an intense relationship with the President and a first family that would capture the nation’s attention like no other. For three years, Lowe was given unparalleled access to the Kennedys at a time when they were taking over the American political scene. Lowe’s family members recount his meticulous dedication to preserving his images of the Kennedys for decades after his tenure as the presidential photographer. “There are no words to describe how attached my father was to his Kennedy negatives,” said his daughter Thomasina in 2003’s Remembering Jack.

Unfortunately for Lowe, his decision to store his prized collection of photo negatives in a vault in the World Trade Center (a decision he made in order to guarantee their security) would result in their destruction during the attacks on September 11, 2001. Around 40,000 of Lowe’s negatives were forever lost when the towers collapsed. All that remained of his legendary photography was a collection of around 1,500 faded, scratched and worn contact sheets, stored in another location.

Those contact sheets were never meant to be used as anything more than a reference for Lowe. The minuscule images were marked with wax, ink and paint to note which ones were valuable. More than 50 years after the original images were shot, a team of highly-skilled photo retouchers from the Newseum transformed those tiny contact sheet images into large, museum-quality prints to celebrate Lowe’s Kennedy photography in a display titled “_Creating Camelot: The Photography of Jacques Lowe.” _More information on the display can be found in the video below:

I had the opportunity to discuss the historic photos and the retouching process with the Newseum’s team of Indira Williams Babic, Sarah Mercier, Neil Petti and Brendan O’Hara. Their work on this exhibit has been truly inspirational to me and I’m happy to share our conversation with you.

What does “Creating Camelot” add to our historical understanding of the Kennedy family?
Creating Camelot: The Photography of Jacques Lowe,” showcases intimate and iconic images of President John F. Kennedy and his family taken by Kennedy’s personal photographer. Jacques Lowe started photographing Kennedy when he was a Senator in DC and his coverage continued through his campaign for the Democratic nomination, his campaign for the Presidency, the historic and glamorous Inauguration and ended during the first months of Kennedy’s presidency in the White House. The role of “Personal Photographer” was new in the political world and, in that capacity, Lowe had unprecedented access to Kennedy and his family. This allowed him to produce intimate and compelling images; on many occasions, Lowe was the only photographer present to capture photographic history.

How long did the “Creating Camelot” photo restoration process last?
The Newseum started the editorial review of the contact sheets back in May 2012 and arranged for the loan of 1500 contact sheets and 100+ prints in August of 2012. A team of seven imaging specialists spent more than 600 hours to digitally capture and restore every single contact sheet and print. The contact sheets were scanned at 400 dpi 200%, producing 150MB TIFF files. The exhibition opened in April, 2013 and will close in January of 2014.

How many of the photographs were restored from the contact sheets? Are there more that will be available, or have you finished the restoration process?
Of the almost 200 photographs restored for the printed and digital exhibition, about 70% came from contact sheets. The digitization process by the Newseum is now completed and the contact sheets, prints and artifacts have been returned to the Estate of Jacques Lowe.

What was the strangest kind of visual obstruction? Yellow highlighter, ketchup etc.
The most prevalent visual obstructions were photographer’s editorial markings with red or blue color pencil. Those were done by Lowe to indicate images selected for publication or enlargement. Some of the prints also had patterned dirt, severe creases, stickers and staples. I’m not sure where color degradation would fit, but there was certainly a lot of that due to the age of the contact sheets and prints.

Were there any photos that you wanted to restore that were not salvageable?
No, there were some extremely challenging ones but we stuck with it and we were able to make them work at the desired target size. It was close in some cases, but, curiously enough, the ones with the most difficult issues were those with editorial content so compelling we could not let them go. So we pressed on.

Which image took the longest to restore?
The image depicting journalists in London with Press Secretary Pierre Salinger was the absolute worst of the entire project. The contact sheet has some sort of white speckled film all over it and it took 40 hours of labor to make that go away using a combination of filters and cloning.

What was the hardest part about this photo restoration? The most rewarding?
The hardest part of the process was, indubitably, reproducing the images in large enough format so they could be part of a traditional photographic exhibit, without negatives. Starting with small contact sheet frames, we used scanning and Photoshop technology to restore (but not change) the images back to their original content and appearance. Perhaps because they were once thought truly lost they are now getting this second look, but the most rewarding part has been sharing these photographs, in the best condition we could make them, with the public again. They are enduring photographs of the Kennedys during an important period of time and have much to offer about a president and a family people never tire of remembering.

Was there one image in particular that had a special story?
There is a photograph of Kennedy in profile at a 1959 press conference in Omaha, Nebraska. He is in focus and a sea of journalists and cameras are slightly soft in the background. We love showing the working press and fell in love with this photograph immediately. It had been widely used, including on the cover of the book, “Remembering Jack.” As we continued researching, we found that Lowe made this photograph early in the campaign and it was chosen for use on all kinds of campaign materials from posters to buttons. His profile was silhouetted, so as soon as we knew what we were looking for we started noticing it everywhere. The posters with that photo started showing up at campaign events in the next set of contact sheets. We wanted to show that development in some way and found an unpublished shot of Kennedy signing the poster for a supporter later in the campaign. In the exhibit we also display a collection of buttons with the now iconic profile. We even chose it to represent the exhibit on the large marquee on the front of the Newseum, facing Pennsylvania Avenue.

How do you think current technology changes our understanding of history?
Current technology, especially the combination of advances in digital imaging and the internet, has made such a dramatic increase in both access to information and images, and what can be done with them. More people going back and studying more and better quality images hopefully furthers and enriches our understanding of history.

Can you share any insights you learned along the way about the digital versus analog photography process?
At the Newseum we do such a variety of things with photographs and we are sometimes amazed and sometimes disappointed with all varieties of analog and born digital photography. For this exhibit the medium-format negatives Lowe made with a Hasselblad really stand out. Even the contact sheets are crisp and clear and had a beautiful range of tones to work with. It was really special to be able to look at every photo from a particular shoot. Many photographers are still reluctant about sharing a whole take with an audience—most of the time only a few editors or clients see it all. It’s interesting that sentiment has carried over into the digital age.

How many of the 40,000 negatives lost were represented in the recovered contact sheets?
Unfortunately, we can’t know exactly. We do know that 10 Kennedy-related negatives were out on loan when the materials in the JP Morgan vault were lost on 9/11/2001. We did not use any of those negatives for our exhibition reproductions.

How did you select the photos that you chose to restore from the 40,000 negatives lost?
The Newseum’s exhibits team of editors, curators, writers, and designers worked closely together from the beginning to determine the printed exhibition content. We reviewed each contact sheet and almost 1,000 individual frames. As the exhibit developed, three important categories emerged: iconic photographs, photographs that were published in the media, and rare photographs we felt were both important to the story of “Creating Camelot” and hadn’t been published. All of the photographs demonstrated Lowe’s unprecedented access at the dawn of what would come to be known as Camelot. Together they show the arc of Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign and the parts of his family life he wanted to share with the country through the press, which he understood was very important.

A separate team of video producers developed a companion video piece that combines interviews with Jacques Lowe and a different assortment of photographs. The 100+ images give the exhibit an extra dimension and allow us to display more of the great content. The walls can only hold so much.

Finally, there is an interactive kiosk with 20+ entire contact sheets. The kiosk has “pinch and zoom” technology so visitors can explore the smallest details.

How were the images brought into Photoshop? Was there an asset management component to tracking so many files?
There was an asset management component, it directly corresponded to the shoot and sheet numbers Lowe used and the physical arrangement of the contact sheets when they arrived at the Newseum. A thorough inventory was completed immediately after the collection arrived in Washington. It was organized carefully in boxes and folders and the digital assets’ unique names were entered in a spreadsheet that tracked the original information on the sheet and the temporary location. All of that information was important for quickly locating the correct sheet when individual frames selected needed to be rescanned for the exhibit. We also used IPTC Core metadata to store known caption information and research.

When the fireproof bank vault containing Lowe’s negatives was found in the post-911 rubble, the vault was intact and open (with a hole where the lock had once been), and it was empty. Have there been investigations or speculation about what happened to the negatives?
A factor of intrigue and mystery surrounds anything related to the Kennedys. Lowe’s family went through a lot to get to the point that they could see the vault and, eventually, they agreed to a settlement with the bank. The Newseum is not privy to the details. We were very fortunate to gain access to the contact sheets and prints Lowe chose to store elsewhere. Being able to scan the entirety of the collection at a time when technology offers us the possibility to produce results of such high quality is a best case scenario to faithfully restore visual history.

Did your team of digital retouchers have to create any custom processes in Photoshop to help with their work?
Yes. To help us keep organized for this project an Action Script was used to color balance and reduce noise grain in Lowe’s scanned photos. The steps to achieve these techniques were as follows: To color balance photo, using toolbar; image ==> adjust ==> desaturate and save. Next, to reduce noise the dialogue was; image ==> mode ==> Lab Color. Next we toggled to the lightness channel to edit. Next, select ==>filter on top tool bar, then, Blur ==> Surface Blur. We set radius to 10 pixels and threshold 10 pixels and saved. Last step using toolbar was, Image ==> Mode ==> RGB and saved with embedded Adobe 1998 color profile.

Where did you learn to do this kind of restoration? Are you a professional restoration specialist?
The restoration was done through the collaboration of a team of 6. The heavy Photoshop lifting was done by 4 digital technicians, while Indira Williams Babic and Sarah Mercier oversaw the process, managing/editing the changes to the final approval of the exhibition versions. Three of our technicians came from the “scanning world” working for leading graphics output and media organizations, and the fourth was a photographer with ample experience in Photoshop.

Were you able to automate or carry-over any work from one image to dozens, hundreds, thousands of others?
We developed a very detailed recording system to keep track of the contact sheets as the 1,500 were moved through the process to automate the scanning workflow. The scanning department using a Color Management System performed calibration on three very different devices: The scanner, monitor and printer. After the calibration step an ICC profile was saved for each device. Capturing, editing and reproducing digital images with a color management system saved time. The decision was made to scan all contact sheets at 400 dpi, 200%. Smaller, 72 dpi, 100% temporary scans were made of the prints to allow for screen display during the editorial selection process.

The approach to scanning the individual frames selected for exhibition was much more specific. Because we were working with contacts sheets and prints of varying age, size and condition, every image required an individual analysis and slightly different approach. Still, some automation was used.

We created an action to smooth out flesh tones, reduce artifacts and add back some texture grain to the photo. However, when it comes to professionally retouching images the imaging technician has many tricks and techniques for improving things like scanner marks and speckles to reproduce as close to the original.

In some cases noise had to be added back into images where dust or serious scratches were cloned out. We created actions which added different levels of noise to match the grain or enlargement size of the image.

Can you share HOW the images were processed in Photoshop?
Yes. There are many reasons to adjust images in Photoshop, but we find the most common two are: matching the look of the original, and increasing the clarity of the photo. As expert scanner operators, we understand that scanning is imperfect, so you may have to adjust the image just to make it look like what you started with and, in our case, we took it beyond that, restoring the degraded materials to their original content. Also, the Newseum is a news museum where the accuracy of images is important. So, as imaging professionals we strive to keep our work ethical. Tonal and color adjustments are made with, Curves, Levels and Brightness and Hue/Saturation. Also, the size we wanted to exhibit the photos was a big factor. In some cases, the enlargement was up to 60” wide, which obviously increased the image resolution and the specs and scratches became very large. So, when removing dust that occurs during scanning or scratches on the contact sheet the healing or clone stamp brush is primarily the tool of choice. Content-aware and the patch tool were occasionally used on damaged edges of photographs. On fading color photographs selective color was used to more faithfully reproduce the known color palette.

Thanks again to the Newseum team for taking the time to discuss this exhibit with me. To learn more about the “Creating Camelot” exhibit, click here.

For more examples of the Newseum’s amazing retouching work, here are additional photos from “Creating Camelot”: